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Serbian connection Small European country making big impact on volleyball team

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of profiles featuring international student athletes at UTRGV

BY Nathaniel Mata | THE RIDER

You can fit the small Eastern European country of Serbia roughly within the central part of Texas. It would fit in an area that encompasses Austin, San Antonio and Houston easily.

The Serbian population would have to almost quadruple to match that of the Lone Star state. If you look at the Vaqueros volleyball roster, you’ll see a much smaller gap. The team has a trio of students playing on the team born in the country 6,000 miles away.

The number of women from Serbia is partially due to the history of Head Coach Todd Lowery and his eagerness to recruit in that region. He has had at least one Serbian woman on his roster since 2010, starting with Danica Markovic. His formula of international recruiting contributed to successful teams at the University of Texas Brownsville, which finished two seasons as National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) champions.

Lowery said the small country is an area with talent that can make a big impact at the NCAA level.

“For the size of the country, they do produce what I think is a high number of very good athletes,” Lowery said. “Just seeing the influence that the Serbians have had in college volleyball in the U.S., you don’t have to dig through very many rosters to find a handful of them: UTSA, Texas, Arizona State.”

But why is Serbia a force to be reckoned with in the international volleyball scene? What makes the tiny country such a must-scout area for college coaches looking to add Division 1-ready girls to their rosters at universities around the country?

Height is a big factor in the ability to compete at a high level. UTRGV’s three Serbians stand tall at 5 feet 9 inches, 6 feet and 6 feet 1 inch. They help contribute to volleyball’s average height of 69.4 inches.

Tina Sekulic, a 5-foot-9-inch junior who played under Lowery at UTB, says that volleyball is a part of a girl’s life from a young age in her homeland. The success of the national volleyball team, which earned a silver medal during the Summer Olympics, also drives popularity in the country.

“It’s a huge deal. Most females are playing volleyball. We can see also in the Olympic Games we were very good, so most girls are trying to be volleyball players,” said Sekulic, a native of Uzice, Serbia. “Honestly, I think we even start before middle school. We start when we are 5, 6 years old. Everybody starts practicing and trying to get better. Every time [the National Volleyball team] comes back from a big competition they come and spend some time with the younger girls, so young girls look up to them and learn something from them.”

Sekulic said proper equipment is hard to come by, but it’s hardly an obstacle for those dedicated.

“Actually, equipment is not that good,” she said. “We don’t have that many opportunities; we don’t have that many shoes, knee pads. Everyone buys on their own. Sometimes you don’t have the proper equipment but you play it because you like to play.”

Junior outside hitter Bojana Mitrovic echoed some thoughts on how Serbians perform well, despite being underdeveloped in athletic facilities.

“We’re a very small country that is big when it comes to sport,” Mitrovic said. “We have some very big names when it comes to athletics, even though the things that we have, like gyms and all the stuff that athletes are required to have in order to succeed, are not very developed over there. People have a big heart and they push and have desire to be successful.”

Mitrovic, who led the Western Athletic Conference in kills per set at 4.29 in her first season in the WAC, said volleyball is often in the spotlight.

“They have [volleyball] on TV all the time. They also play the local games on channels,” she said. “They also broadcast all the big competitions that are happening. So, as a child, I was watching sports a lot because my family is very into sports.”

For these skilled players there is adjustment not only on the volleyball court, but also adjusting to their new country and community.

“It’s hard to be away from your family and your friends,” said Mitrovic, a 6-foot-1-inch hitter from Novi Sad, Serbia.“You come here and you have nobody. For me the big thing was that I had Tina by my side, so it was kind of easier. It was two of us in a package. Also, Coach, by that time had two more Serbian girls that played [at UTB], so it also helped. I’m pretty sure now on this team it’s the same for the girls that are new because there’s a lot of international kids and we’re going through the same issues. It’s easier for us because we can help and give advice.”

The youngest member of the Serbian trio, Dubravka Vukoja, is grateful to have fellow countrywomen on the team. The sophomore relies on her teammates for help with language and school.
“It feels really good to have somebody from the same country as you are, especially with Bojana because we played together on the same team,” Vukoja said. “When I need help, I just ask her. Same with Tina. We really love spending time with each other.”

Vukoja, a setter, earned a spot on the WAC all-freshman team last season. She has goals to play professionally in Europe after finishing her college career. It wouldn’t be an unrealistic goal since Danica Markovic, a former UTB player under Lowery recently began her professional career.

“Back home, you cannot go to college and play volleyball; those are two separate things,” said Vujoka, a 6-footer. “You either play professionally or go to college. I didn’t want to choose any of those. I came here, so I’m ready to take my diploma and play professionally after.”

These student-athletes come to Edinburg with big goals not only for themselves but also for the team’s success.

All three Serbians have contributed to UTRGV’s strong start this volleyball season. It’s a symbiotic relationship and it’s hard to imagine a Todd Lowery team in the future without a strong presence from the foreign country of Serbia.

The Vaqueros will try to knock off WAC front-runners the same way they knocked off three tournament hosts out of four tournaments they competed in.

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